Monday, December 21, 2009

Occluding the Season


Someone on a chat-channel pasted a link to a David Duke diatribe on how "the Jews" were effacing Christmas from our national consciousness. As might be expected, the polemic suffered from overdrawn inferences aided by material omissions. Moreover, it was not clear to me that Duke's Christmas tradition was not simply a Disneyfied version of German-English holidays which didn't leave much room for equally Christian traditions of other sorts.

However, in one factual respect, the report was correct: Rahm Emmanuel, accompanied by two Chabad Lubavitch rabbis in black, had lit the "National Menorah" on the White House Ellipse.


National Menorah? I had never heard of such a thing and I certainly have never seen a Jumbo Candelabra on the White House lawn. Where have I been? When did this start?

According to the AP, the National Menora "tradition" began 30 years ago when Jimmy Carter "attended" a lighting of Hanukkah candles in 1979.


Well... someone at the AP is overstating a case. What Carter did was attend a low key, privately sponsored ceremony -- much in the way presidents munch on ethnic foods and issue commemorative proclamations on the occasion of some hyphen-American holiday. It all fell into the category of ribbon cutting in the Kumbaya State.

The White House archives confirm as much, stating that "many Presidents" -- i.e. Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton -- "have participated in lighting ceremonies marking Hanukkah." However, 2001 " marks the first year a Hanukkah lamp (a menorah) was lit in the White House residence" by President Bush-II and attendees.

In other words, the 30 year "tradition" boiled down to a president toodling off somewhere to light some candles. It was not until 2001, the candles were brought to the public space of the White House, and even then, the ceremony was conducted behind closed doors.

With good reason too, since "one of the oldest symbols of the Jewish faith is the menorah, a seven-branched candelabrum used in the Temple." (Jewish Virtual Library - [here] ) By any standard a public presidential validation or endorsement of a ceremony symbolizing a "faith" would violate the Establishment Clause.

So how is it that a sectarian religious symbol which also doubles as a foreign national emblem gets erected on the nation's Capitol Mall?

The argument trucked out along with the menorah is essentially one of "equal time" -- if you Christians get to light up your tree, we Jews have a right to light up our candlestick. This was the argument put forth Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky with respect to airport Christmas trees. Contrary to David Duke's polemic, Rabbi Bogomilsky did not demand that the Christmas in the SeaTac airport be taken down but rather "requested that a Hanukkah menorah also be displayed" [ Seattle Times ] Bogomilsky is also a member of the orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch, sect which has evidently set for itself the mission of promoting an equal but separate icon.

The promotion rests on the fallacy that the Christmas tree is a religious symbol. It is not. Whatever religious significance it might once have had in the pagan forests of Germany, the Christmas tree is no more than a cultural motif. And a rather universal one at that.



It would be difficult to argue that a Tannenbaum which once graced Soviet era not-Christian Christmas cards constitutes a peculiarly and specifically Christian symbol. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has so held, which is precisely why a Christmas tree is allowed on the White House lawn, whereas a Nativity Scene is not.

In contrast to the absence of bishops or cardinals attending or blessing the the lighting of the National Tree, the lighting of the National Menorah has always been conducted by and in the presence of rabbis.

Of course, as with almost anything Jewish, the Menorah has a dual character. Thus, the same Jewish Virtual Library which describes the Menorah as a symbol of faith, goes on to state in a separate article that the lighting of menorah candles on "Chanukah is not a very important religious holiday." The celebration arose from the super abundance of lamp oil which miraculously appeared during the siege of the Second Temple by King Antiochus IV against the Maccabees "a religious traditionalist group" who had joined forces in a revolt against [ ] the assimilation of the Hellenistic Jews and and oppression by the Selucid Greek government."

Even here, a religious motive and a spiritual miracle are assigned to the menorah symbol. But, stripping the object of all possible religious connection, what is left is a symbol of a national uprising against foreign domination -- a sort of Jewish Cinco de Mayo.

One is left to wonder whether we will soon see the lighting of the National Sombrero on the Ellipse as well.

What is ironic, if not galling, is that an object which symbolizes apartness and a rejection of assimilation should receive public validation under the rubric of "inclusivity". While it is certainly appropriate for public officials to give recognition to the distinct and separate traditions and heritages that make up the American tableau, it is quite a different matter to elevate one of those symbols into a national icon. In fact, given the Menorah's non-religious role as the symbol of a foreign nation state, it is hard to see what justification could exist for erecting it, in that or any capacity, on our nation's Capitol Mall.

On the other hand, despite its name, the Christmas tree was and remains an appropriate national symbol because it is religiously neutral. As noted, a decorated tree is an object that has been adopted the world over as a motif for end-of-year celebrations, of all hues. In the United States, the decorating of a Christmas tree is a festivity engaged in by virtually everyone and by virtue of that very commonality (Jews included) is appropriately a symbol of all of us during this Season.

The hoisting of a menorah on public space is an artifice that seizes upon the inherent ambiguities between culture and religion. Traditionally, virtually all of a society's culture flowed from religion. Even where a cultural artifice had a material or economic origin, it was inevitably "spiritualized" and became imbued with a religious significance or, at least, connection. Since the close of the 19th century, the dynamic has flowed in the opposite direction. Originally religious motifs have been secularized and, under the "scientific" aegis of sociology religion has been reduced to an aspect of culture. The Supreme Court has struggled to implement the Establishment Clause within these ambiguities.

The more or less traditional legal rule set forth in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) 403 U.S. 602 was that the Establishment Clause prohibited "entanglements" between Church and State. The rule recognized that in the modern state, strict separation between the government and anything was impossible. In sociological fashion, the Court interpreted the clause in light of its supposed "function" and held that state action (1) have a secular legislative purpose; (2) must not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion and (3) must not result in an "excessive government entanglement" with religion.

The issue was more or less simple so long as at issue was whether the government was funding lunches or textbooks in parochial schools. But what about a Nativity Scene on the steps of City Hall?

In Lynch v. Donnelly (1984) 465 U.S. 668 the Court ruled that the issue depended on the "setting". Where the creche was simply part of a larger display of non-religious cultural artifacs such as "a Santa Claus house, reindeer pulling Santa's sleigh, candy-striped poles, a Christmas tree, carolers, cutout figures representing such characters as a clown, an elephant, and a teddy bear, hundreds of colored lights, a large banner that reads "SEASONS GREETINGS," the Nativity Scene lost its religious character and its erection at a minimal cost of $200.00 could not be regarded as involving excessive entanglement or as having the primary effect of promoting religion. After all, the State funds art museums, which are chock full of religious paintings, and

"whatever benefit there is to one faith or religion or to all religions, is indirect, remote, and incidental; display of the creche is no more an advancement or endorsement of religion than ... the exhibition of literally hundreds of religious paintings in governmentally supported museums."

The issue came before the Court again a few years later, County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, (1989) 492 U.S. 573 when the court was asked to rule on the constitutinality of an "equal time" Menorah / Manger / Tree display on city property.

The Court had little difficulty with the creche. It ruled that the Nativity Scene was essentially and unavoidably religious in nature. But, unlike the multi-cultural setting in Lynch, Allegheny's creche stood alone. Its isolated display on public property -- not connected with any other cultural exhibit -- constituted a public endorsement of a particular religious idea. Manger out (at pg. 613)



However, the Menorah and the Tree were part of a separate display, across the square, supposedly celebrating "liberty". Except for Justice Brennan, the Court agreed that whatever pagan symbolism the Christmas tree may have had, it had become widely viewed as a "preeminently secular symbol" of the "Christmas" [they meant "seasonal"] holiday. The Menorah, however, posed " a closer constitutional question"( at pg. 613.)

"The menorah, one must recognize, is a religious symbol: it serves to commemorate the miracle of the oil as described in the Talmud. But the menorah's message is not exclusively religious. The menorah is the primary visual symbol for a holiday that, like Christmas, has both religious and secular dimensions. Moreover, the menorah here stands next to a Christmas tree and a sign saluting liberty. While no challenge has been made here to the display of the tree and the sign, their presence is obviously relevant in determining the effect of the menorah's display." (At pp. 613-614.)
In other words, because the Christmas Tree was non-religious, it served to "secularize" an otherwise Jewish religious symbol and reduce the the whole display to a celebration of Liberty without endorsing either Christianity or Judaism.

Justice Brennan dissented, arguing that the display endorsed both religions since the Christmas Tree was a patently religious symbol. Although Justice Brennan is worthy of great respect as a jurist, on this point, he was plainly wrong. The Christmas Tree, so called simply because the Solstice and Christ's birthdate coincide, is not a religious artifact. While the Solstice Tree has been incorporated into a religious holiday it is patently not the symbol of Christianity the way the Menorah is the symbol of Judaism and the Jewish State.

The defect in the Court majority's reasoning lay not in its secular characterization of an evergreen but in the supposition that a symbol can have its religious essence "leeched" out of it by a tree. If that were the case, why not erect a Cross as well?

Equally shallow was the majority's reasoning that the posting of a sign saying "Liberty" could secularize the "message." No one could have thought that this was a Fourth Of July celebration in the snow. Moreover, if the whole issue depends on signs, why not accompany the Nativity Scene with a sign that reads "Family Values Through the Ages."

Alleghany was a bad decision because the ground of decision was simply fear of giving offence to a vociferous minority intent on "equal time".

It goes without saying that all religions are deserving of official respect. But the constitutional line is drawn at "endorsement". It is certainly true that religious artifacts can loose their liturgical import when viewed simply as artistic or cultural products. But that is not what is involved in erecting a "national" anything. A national symbol is one which, by virtue of being "national," speaks to and represents all of us. That, the Jewish Menorah does not do, and its hoisting on the Ellipse is an interloping occlusion of the otherwise common festivities we observe as nation at this time of year. That non-sectarian and festive commonality is sufficiently represented by our National Christmas Tree which desrves to stand majestically alone.

First National Christmas Tree -1923


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Kitchen Debates Redux


In the early Fifties, shortly before the Nixon-Kruschev Kitchen Debates, the Soviet Union decided to prove that it too could be a consumer society -- that the Dictatorship of the Proletariate could shower goodies on the worker as well as any capitalist trickle-down. Enter GUM


GUM, or the Glavnyi Universalnyi Magazin (Главный Универсальный Магазин), was originally housed in the shell of what had been a 19th century trading mall on Red Square. Once the Soviet Union picked itself up from the devastations of the Great Patriotic War, the mall was converted into a general mass-merchandise mart for the masses.

The range of GUM's goods counted over 30 thousand items, including textiles, ready-made clothes, shoes, knitted and linen goods, kitchenware, household goods, furniture and rugs, furs and headwear, stationery and toys, and recreational goods. Eventually, some specialty food items were included as well. The basic idea was, You can get anything you want at the State Department Store.




And anywhere as well. As the decade wore on and the missle gap closed, branch GUMs opened around the country, diffusing through the vast reaches of Mother Russia all the goods and trinkets the Central Planning Office could order up. Pictures in Soviet Life proudly showed ordinary Russians being... uhm.. as almost American as anyone.

Life Magazine showed us the same pictures, but with a different sub-text. Those poor Russian wannabees! Look at them lining up outside gussied up warehouses to grab what they can carry. Sure it's better than nothing -- even if it is shoddy -- but would you want to live there?


Yesterday, for some reason, I thought of GUM.

.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Wussiecrats & Womans



Do you really think that we who have stood before you a hundred or a thousand times preaching faith in a new Germany,... would lay down our weapons in exchange for a parliamentary railroad pass? If we only wanted to become representatives, we would not be National Socialists, but rather German National Party members or Social Democrats. .... We do not have the stomach for that. We do not beg for votes. We demand conviction, devotion, passion! A vote is only a tool for us as well as for you. We will march into the marble halls of parliament, bringing with us the revolutionary will of the broad masses from which we came, called by fate and forming fate. We do not want to join this pile of manure. We are coming to shovel it out!
---Goebbels, On why you should vote National Socialist


I’ve always admired this fire in the belly, and if people look at me askance it is because they confuse the post-war myth with the pre-war reality. The myth is that the Nazis put an end to a struggling democracy, like a boot brutally squashing a lovely Spring flower under heel That is nonesense. Whatever they may have brutally done after coming to power, a democratic Weimar was as dead as door nail by 1929 when Hindenburg began to rule by presidential decree. What existed from thereon out was a parliamentary dementia in its final throes.

The reality was far more than a “Depression” which, it is said, confused and frightened Germans. It was that. On the morning after the United States enacted the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act (1930), six million Germnas were thrown out of work. But it was that on top of a decade of acquiescent defeatism that had left Germany, as Hitler put it, “a dismayed and shattered nation.”

The inescapable record is that, since taking over the government in 1919, the Social Democrats had acquiesced in every imagineable act of diplomatic and economic subordination to outside interests: accepting guilt for the Great War which was no more Germany’s fault than it was France, Russia or Austria’s; accepting the loss of territories that had been as much German as French or Polish; accepting a demilitarized helplessness, and accepting a crushing burden of reparations which reduced Germany to a virtual debtor-slave state through 1980. The most remarkable Social Democratic initiative in this dismal sequence was to initiate the hyper-inflation of 1920 which wiped out everyone’s savings and gave us photographs of people pushing wheel barrows of worthless marks to the bread shop.

It is true that Germany began a “recovery” in 1925 which lasted until 1929; but it was a recovery engineered by Wall Street banks which backed a new temporary currency (the so-called rentenmark) and underwrote the Dawes Plan pursuant to which American banks lent money to Germany to help it pay reparations to France and England who in turn paid back their loans from American banks. Needless to say, like Pay Day Lenders today, Wall Street didn’t help Germany pay its debts for free. The result in Wall Street was that juicy interest payments were raked in from all sides; but Germany itself had been “privatized” and was a mere cork bobbing on the swells of “market-magic”.

It is of course unfair to blame the Social Democrats alone for this wretched state of affairs -- and the Nazis didn’t. For most of its existence, Weimar was governed by a coalition of Social Democrats with the Catholic Center Party and a variety of lesser right wing parties. With the death of the Social Democrat Stressman in 1929, the chancellorship passed to the Catholic, Bruening who faced the economic debacle by raising taxes and cutting back drastically on social services (while trying to negotiate some breathing room with American Banks). Who wouldn’t be disgusted?

But to truly understand the disgust one has to be aware of the promise. Beginning in the 1880s -- a period known as the Grunderzeit or Foundation Time -- Germany was the most prosperous and advanced country in the world. Bismarck had lain the foundations of the social welfare state, including unemployment benefits, pensions, education and health care. While nothing is perfect, the pictures from these times show a remarkably healthy and happy people virtually across the spectrum. Now, beginning in the 1930’s, across the spectrum, there was nothing but political chaos and misery, as people lined up for soup and bread and as armed bands from all political hues marched and fought in the streets.

Who would not be engraged by such a state of affairs? Goebbel’s speech drew from and spoke to a just anger. Not to vicariously feel that anger is to not understand history -- a history trenchantly summarized by Hitler upon assuming office.

“MORE than fourteen years have passed since the unhappy day when the German people, blinded by promises from foes at home and abroad, lost touch with honor and freedom, thereby losing all. ...

We never received the equality and fraternity we had been promised, and we lost our liberty to boot. ...

The insane conception of victors and vanquished destroyed the confidence existing between nations, and, at the same time, the industry of the entire world. ...

The misery of our people is horrible to behold! Millions of the industrial proletariat are unemployed and starving; the whole of the middle class and the small artisans have been impoverished. . . .
It wasn’t quite “Marxism” that had ruined Germany, but with due latitude for poltical rhetoric, Hitler had distilled the essence of the matter. A political cowardice and incompetence, bordering on the treasonous, was allowing Germany and its people to be despoiled. Why?

A year later, speaking to the Nuremberg Party Day rally, Hitler recalled the early days of the Nazi “struggle” which, he said, had been infused with a single guiding principle: “We would be a party with an ideology” The crowd roared its approval. Some 80 years on and this hardly seemed something to roar about. “I promise I will stand for something” isn’t much of a promise is it? But this reaction overlooks the historical context.

It is worth remembering that it was Lenin who in 1914 excoriated the Social Democrats for loosing their ideology by enlisting in support of the Kaiser’s war. He accused them of flying a false flag, of betraying socialist ideals, and of being shameless opportunists and chauvinists who had forged an alliance with their antipode, the bourgeoise state. In a word, an ideologically committed socialist could not be a nationalist. “Social-nationalism has grown out of opportunism and it is opportunism that gave it power.” (Lenin, Collected Articles, pp 133-134)

It was a curiously prophetic damnation; for, when this was written in 1917, the National Socialists did not yet exist. But the thrust of Lenin’s perception was that by being a party without an ideology, the Social Democrats could only be a party of opportunists who would inevitably become the opposite of what they had set out to be.

Hitler's statement was not as empty as it might seem at first. With Lenin's critque in mind, it can be seen that having any ideology at all works against mere opportunism which itself is the greatest political degradation of all. Hitler’s accusation that the Social Democrats had sold out to American finance capitalism was a charge that began with Lenin’s accusation that they had sold out to German nationalism. They were, in either view, a party without convictions in search of a railway pass. [FN1- Qui Bono?]

But Social Democrats were not the only sell outs. The Catholic Center also sold out. These two coalition parties were politically closer than one might think. The Catholic Center (predecessor of today's Christian Democrats) formed part of what at the end of the 19th century was called the Third Way -- parties that rejected the anti-social materialism of liberal capitalism as well as the anti-national or anti-religious dialectical materialism of Marxism. Proponents of the third way included the likes of Bismarck, the Catholic Church, the various hues of fascism and falangism and Proudhon’s “petit bourgeois socialism” (quoth Marx). While these factions disagreed on collateral issues, they all espoused an ideology of class cooperation within a mixed regulated economy for the good the state as reflecting the good of the whole. The gradualism of the Social Democrats, which espoused “interim” measures on the “peaceful march toward full socialism” brought them into the third way and rendered them (at least in Communist eyes) de facto fascists. Communists themselves regarded fascism (in this broad and economic sense) as a transitional phase and no one in Europe at least would consider it odd to call FDR’s New Deal “fascism-lite”.

However, in addition to agreeing on a basket of socio-economic issues, the Social Democrats and the Catholic Center also also collaborated in the overall geo-economic passivism of the Weimar Republic -- policies which by 1930 had led to nothing but national-bankruptcy. The difference between the two parties could be said to be that the Social Democrats sold out their socialism and ultimately their nationalism whereas the Catholic Center sold out its nationalism and ultimately it’s social syndicalism. From the Nazi perspective, they both had sold out the German People “thereby losing all”.

The subsequent war has obscured the validity of the Nazi position. The Allies (by which we mean the United States, England and France) were not interested in doing anything just by Germany. They had her down and were going to keep her there and squeeze her for what she was worth for the ultimate benefit of American banks. In such a situation, there were three alternatives: the Communist alternative of a revolution against the entire capitalist system, the Nationalist solution of autarchic economic self sufficiency (which was adopted by Canada in 1932 and Germany in 1933) and, lastly, the quivering Quisling solution of meekly negotiating the least wrenching shaft possible. The Nazi choice, which flipped the Allies the bird, was well within the parameters of the practical and honorable. Who would not tell them to Go to Hell?

To summarize one of the most complex periods in history with a few paragraphs is perilous indeed, so caveat lector. Understanding the appeal to Germans held out by Nazi criticisms of Weimar's geo-political and economic "policies" should not be mistaken for indifference to their ultimate, genocidal crimes against humanity.

It is also important to bear in mind that, in terms of political economy, virtually all parties in Germany in 1930 were to the left of any current political party in the United States. None believed in the “magic of the market” or in the privatization of civil society; virtually everyone in the United States does. [Fn2]

Thus, in terms of political economies, no comparison truly exists between today’s Democratic Party and either Germany’s Social or Christian Democrats. Whatever inching FDR and later LBJ may have begun toward something like the Bismarckian State, it has long since gone by the wayside.

But it is precisely in the “wayside” that an analogy exists. Like Germany’s Social Democrats of yore, today’s Wussiecrats are “a party without an ideology” -- a collection of craven opportunists, who sell out, over and over again, to the masters of the “bouregoise state” -- corporate finance and industrial capital, just as the coalition parties in Weimar caved in and sold out to much those very same interests playing out on the international stage

If the Wussiecrats do not hit the air-waves and the streets with a firm progressive propaganda, at once educating and drawing strength from the broad masses of ordinary people, it is precisely because they don’t have an ideology. If they cave in before rabble rousing slanders and compromise, compromise and compromise again with banksters and corporate interests who regard American “society” as nothing more than something to be plundered until it has nothing more to give, it is because they are willing to stab the American people in the back for a jet ride and a paltry jingle of compaign coin.

Lenin and Goebbels saw the phenomena from different angles -- the one from the class perspective of the worker, the other from the national perspective of das Volk -- but both, were they here today, would recognized the Wussiecrats for what they really are.

-oOo-

Agustan Ara Pacis (Altar [East-West] Peace)
ANNOS UNDEVIGINTI NATUS EXERCITUM PRIVATO CONSILIO ET PRIVATA IMPENSA COMPARAVI. PER QUEM REM PUBLICAM A DOMINATIONE FACTIONIS OPPRESSAM IN LIBERATATEM VINDICAVI.
I have always gotten a wry kick out of the Divine Augustus’s opening lines to the summary of his Life’s Work [Res Gestae]. It took a certain panache to say “In my nineteenth year, on my own initiative and at my own expense, I raised an army with which I set free the state, which was oppressed by the domination of a faction.

Of course, as everyone understood, Augustus had in fact established a military dictatorship; but to the end, he assiduously persisted in the fiction that he had “restored the Republic” -- and that fiction was his great and perduring act of statesmanship.

Augustus hated the title of imperator -- “chief,” “commander,” “duce” or “fuhrer”. He gave short shrift to sycophants who addressed him as such and as soon as he could he gave up direct command of the legions.

“Although the senate and Roman people consented that I alone be made curator of the laws and customs with the highest power, I received no magistracy offered contrary to the customs of the ancestors. What the senate then wanted to accomplish through me, I did through tribunician power, and five times on my own accord I both requested and received from the senate a colleague in such power."
It was not a lie; but for those familiar with the Roman Constitution the statement was a subtlety of evasion and equivocation that is simply exquisite. Yes. Augustus was merely, the “first” senator, an amiable, bourgois gentilhomme, who merely had the honorary privilege of speaking first in the Senate. The charade was strictly observed by the better Caesars for almost two centuries. As Gibbon inimitably put it,

"Augustus was sensible that mankind is governed by names; nor was he deceived in his expectation, that the senate and people would submit to slavery, provided they were respectfully assured that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom."
"The masters of the Roman world surrounded their throne with darkness, concealed their irresistible strength, and humbly professed themselves the accountable ministers of the senate, whose supreme decrees they dictated and obeyed."
But Augustus was also sensible that the Romans were governed by pride. As much as a spurious freedom, they could be led by the nose if they were assured that they were the masters of the world.

As is well known, Julius Caesar was assassinated by “strict constructionists” who feared (not unreasonably) that he wished to make himself a king. But, according to the German historian, Mommsen, there was another issue at play as well: Casesar wanted to be ruler of a Mediterranean Empire.

Virtually all ambitious Romans of this epoch were obsessed with the memory of Alexander the Great. In despair at 30, Pompey sighed that at his age Alexander had conquered “the world”. But it wasn’t just a conqueror that young Romans saw in Alexander. They all understood that Alexander had forged a new social and cultural demographic broadly known as “Hellenism” under whose Greek umbrella the various peoples and cultures of the Middle East were united. From Greek statuary in India, to the Septuagint in Judea, to the Library at Alexandria, to a thousand different manifestations of language, food, song, and prayer, Alexander’s achievement was a monument on whose foundations we today still stand.

According to Mommsen, Caesar’s real ambition was to complete this work -- to forge a new multi-cultural empire around the shores of the Mediterranean. He conceived of turning the Senate into a representative body for all the peoples of this world within the construct of something like a strong but constitutional monarchy. The dalliance with Cleopatra was nothing romantic, but rather a calculated move to associate a co-monarch who could command the obedience and reverence of a key eastern block within this new empire.

The Romans -- and especially the Roman mob -- would have nothing of it. They were Romans; they had conquered the world; they were not about to be “degraded” to the level of peoples whose butts they had kicked. The Romans, like Americans today, were nothing if not belligerent, loud, jingoistic and xenophobic. As of Augustus’s day, they were also fat, lazy and spent their time munching snax while watching the Big Game.

Augustus understood the nature of the beast and foreswore any caesaresque notions of “pan-mediterraneanism”. No, no. Roman ways, including Roman privileges were sacrosanct.

But ever the artful, dissembler, Augustus laid the patient groundwork for precisely that pan-mediterranean empire that his predecessor understood had to be. Augustus did it by means of something that might be called a “Roman Option.

He gave instructions that Roman citizenship was to liberally granted, not to every unwashed metic, but to as many responsible middle class types as possible. At the same time he encouraged the extension of Roman malls, theatres and manners wherever possible.. New Romans were to be welcomed into the Roman Senate and lesser regional senates were to be established throughout the Empire.

It worked. Within a hundred years, Rome was ruled by emperors born in Spain or Gaul or Africa. Within two hundred years, the Greeks were called Romanoi. De facto, Augustus had created the Mediterranean Empire that was the apotheosis of the Ancient World (in the West).

But the “original” Romans themselves remained fat, lazy and self-enfatuated. The vitality of empire passed to the peripheries while the center itself remained degenerate and decayed. It is almost impossible to comprehend how debased the Romans had become. The saying that made the rounds in the Empire’s closing decades was: Ridet et Moritur

She laughs and expires. Romans were literally at the Games when Alaric besieged the capital in 410. They had come to “expect’ empire. Their legions marched off to battle with glistening armour animated by the strong expectation that they had a right to win. Increasingly they lost. Increasingly they paid off their enemies and, in the end, by the Sixth Century, when the Germans had taken over the Western Empire, the name “Roman” had become an insult.

As is well known, Gibbon blamed Christianity, for this rotting from within. But that, in my opinion, was his delightfully sarcastic Enlightenment prejudice. To a certain degree, Christianity did reflect a “turn inward” but of all the many cults and gnosticisms that rampaged the Empire in its later days, Christianity was, in fact, one of the more socially focused and practical.

It is also somewhat stretched to think that Romans were fussing about all the theological controversies Gibbon so sardonically ridicules. No doubt then, as now, there were those fought over unseen fundamentalisms and those who exploited such fantasmagoric convictions political advantage. The Pagan-Christian squabble over the statue of Victory in the Senate Hall remains a paradigmatic example of mankind's propensity for factionalism "even where no substantial occasion exists." (Madison, Federalist Paper 10) But closer to the heart of Roman degeneracy the fact that they confused their past achievements with their present capacities and had come to expect the good things in life as a birthright. They became, in Gibbon’s word, “ennervated” and despised those who actually worked and fought for a living as crude lower people.

Without any irony Americans are pleased to think of themselves “as Romans” Alas, the analogy holds. At all levels, Americans are a people infused by a sense of “entitlement” -- not simply to welfare or food stamps (that’s the least part of it) but to a “consumer life style” purchased, now, on easy credit, to be paid off tomorrow sometime, if ever. This entitlement is buttressed by the a phalanx of absurd prejudices, artfully fanned by the corporate media

We are a Light unto the nations; the freest most succcessful society ever.
We are a nation of hardy invidivuals; the most powerful country in the world and we kick ass
Selfishness is taken for individuality and self-reliance morphs into nastiness against the less fortunate. The actual deficit of either bravery or freedom is made up for by vicariously enjoyed brutality and indifference to cruelty.

There are, as everywhere and at all times, decent and thoughtful Americans. But the country as a whole tailors to the image of the indulent slob who confuses his present capacities with his past prowess while living in the clarity of mythical simplicities.

The artfulness of Augustus -- what makes him great in the eyes of history -- is that ultimately he used his deceptions for some concept of the greater historical good. Hoodwinking his own people and despite them he laid the foundations for what became the Western World. Hardly a shabby accomplishment.

To say that there is no Augustus on the American horizon is an understatement. The corporate caesars who rule this country and shroud their boardrooms in darkness do so not for any exalted vision of the common good, but for their own rapacious profit. If Rome was plundered from outside, America is plundered from within.

Thousands of the industrial proletariate have forever been thrown out onto the streets as US enterprises shipped jobs overseas and then paid their whores in the press to whip up anti-immigrant hysterias.

The middle class whose shrinking wealth was puffed up by easy credit has had its holdings wiped out by a financial bubble which has come close to bankrupting the world’s economy. Two adminsitrations have flooded bank coffers with trillions of dollars and yet, after unloading themselves of toxic assets and refusing to refinance crushing mortgage terms, the banks not only refuse to lend even to prime customers but are closing down their retail operations. This is a “Fuck You” to America on a colossal scale.

After declaring bankruptcy on the broken back of unions, car manufacturers undercuts their own dealers and sell directly on the internet. Most of its sales are overseas anyhow.

To say, as the Mudia do, that consumer confidence is “down” ignores the more salient fact that “confidence” is down because wherewithall is nill. In this last month, actual unemployment rose to between 16 and 18 percent. Defying the worst prognostications, available credit sank by 20 billion and 35 millions or 12% of the country is on food stamps.

By all real indicators, the economy is imploding; but this fact is papered over by statistics that take into account the astronomical asset plunder of the upper one percent. This is much like saying GDP was “up” under Ghengis Khan.

There are, in fact, two economies: theirs and ours. To date, none of the Obama Administration’s nostrums have actually worked in favor of the working man or to stimulate a real productive economy. Now comes the Obama Administration with a health reform proposal that will require everyone to buy into one of the most sinister and evil scams the economic world as ever seen --- the U.S. medico insurance complex.

Is Obama’s proposal an Augustan Artifice, giving lip service to the sacred free market taboo while creating a new reality or is it just a timid cave in to corporate caesars? It is hard to say because thus far he has been low key, cryptic, equivocal which is, to be sure, the very essence of Augustan statesmanship. But the details that have thus far emerged provide “incentives” without “requirements” That was the same approach that has allowed banks to literally walk away from all socially economic responsibility while pocketting billions.

Disguised or not, without directly imposing standards on the medico-insurance complex the villainy will simply find new and improved ways to exploit the public. We need not repeat the horrors of this “uniquely American” monstruousity. What might be worth knowing is who profits from it.

  • Ronald A. Williams, Chair/ CEO, Aetna Inc., $23,045,834 per annum,
  • H. Edward Hanway, Chair/ CEO, Cigna Corp, $30.16 million
  • David B. Snow, Jr, Chair/ CEO, Medco Health, $21.76 million
  • Michael B. MCallister, CEO, Humana Inc, $20.06 million
  • Stephen J. Hemsley, CEO, UnitedHealth Group, $13,164,529
  • Dale B. Wolf, CEO, Coventry Health Care, $20.86 million
  • Jay M. Gellert, President/ CEO, Health Net, $16.65 million
  • Raymond McCaskey, CEO, Blue Cross Blue Shield), $10.3 million
  • Angela F. Braly, President/ CEO, Wellpoint, $9,094,771
  • Michael F. Neidorff, CEO, Centene Corp, $8,750,751
  • Todd S. Farha, CEO, WellCare Health Plans, $5,270,825
  • Daniel P. McCartney, CEO, Healthcare Services Group, Inc, $ 1,061,513
  • William C. Van Faasen, Chairman, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, $3 million
  • Cleve L. Killingsworth, President/CEO Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, $3.6 million
  • Charlie Baker, President/ CEO, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, $1.5 million
  • James Roosevelt, Jr., CEO, Tufts Associated Health Plans, $1.3 million
  • Daniel Loepp, CEO, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, $1,657,555
Such compensation levels are anti-social per se. And it is the same in every other sector of the economy. These corporate creatures are an alien virus. They have no shame and no sentiment. When they have consumed and gutted America from within like some voracious cancer they will simply pack up and relocate to Dubai, protected by a private army of Blackwater goons.

And while they themselves are thus destroyed what do Amurkans do? Twitter et moritur.

o0o

So as I look out at the U.S. panorama today, I think back to Rome and Germany. Our political parties are as spineless and oppotunistic as Weimar’s and our people are as arrogant and enfeebled as the later Romans. There is no grass roots party with a true fire in its belly and there is no statesman with the long view and subtle artifice of an Augustus.


©WCG, 2009
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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Fauxbama


Back in October 2o08, the Woodchipgazette lent it's editorial clout in support of Barack Obama's candidacy. We did so because Dennis Kucinich was no longer in the running and because Obama held out the dual promise of rectification and incremental change.

What passes in the US for a leftist press was dismissive of Obama whom it characterized as just a kinder, gentler neo-liberal. On the particular merits, it was hard to dispute the left's contention that Obama was simply Clintonomics redux. The response to this criticism joined on the question of tactics. The argument was that, given America's socio-political realties, no candidate could risk sounding to "liberal". It was pointed out that, during the 1933 campaign, Franklin Roosevelt had kept an even keel, profferring up bland, if not imbecilic, nostrums ("Happy Days are Here Again") and had avoided scaring people with talk of big dreams and plans.

We were both skeptical and annoyed. What's the point of a democracy if one can't openly and candidly debate and choose between rival political options? An election reduced to subjective hunches derived from reading tea-leaves is a pointless waste of time. Nevertheless, given the social realities, the argument was not without force; and so, reading tea leaves and hoping for the best, we endorsed Obama.

We refrained, however, from exultation and jubilation upon his election. It was our prediction [ Delirium Tremens ] that "domestically and diplomatically Obama will provide some emollients and better manners, but ... little else." Our view was informed as much by America's status in the historical cycle as by the state of Obama's mind. Although Obama might take "a few paltry steps towards realizing Bismarckian social benefits" and to working "through allies and international institutions" he was constrained by realities, not least of which was that the rest of the Democratic Party --- including Nancy Pelosi -- was warning the rest of us not to expect a New Deal. Within days of the election, the FDR analogy all but collapsed.

Nevertheless, we have withheld from ringside cheering or carping. Nothing gets built in a day, and giving Obama a chance to prove what he could do seemed more important to us than proving our skill at prophetic prognostication -- the favorite pastime of the Sribbling Brahmin class. And so we resolved on six months of silence.

It is now six months on and it has to be said that on every score Obama has proved to be a totally false promise. He is, as we feared he might be, simply a neo-liberal without the "punk". Gone is the stumbling and snarling bully boy blabber of the Bush-Cheney Cabal -- but in all fundamental respects US international and domestic policy has remained on course and the same. Obama has lowered the tone and softened the edges, that is all.

The list need not be gone through, since it is part of the public record even as covered by the Murkan mudia. But of all Obama's promises, none was more inexcusably faux than his grotesque failure on health care. It was to be expected that, on foreign policy issues (including the environment and international humanitarian law), any president would be constrained by strong vested interests buttressed by something called "continuity". In a word, no Empire has gone Swiss --- at least not before its ultimate downfall. The case was otherwise on the criminal obscenity known as the the US health care system.

At every level and juncture, the health care system in the US is so grotesque, not even the dark pen of Goya could capture its foulness. As of May/June, 70 percent of the electorate was in favor of a radical overhaul including a strong, competitive and universally available public option. A solid majority were in favor of a single payer system. With public support like that and a super majority in both houses of congress, a health care New Deal was a roll-in.

Instead "health care reform" has been rolled out on a stretcher, replaced by something Obama calls "health insurance reform". It was to be expected that any reform that put limits on corporate pillage of the public would be subject to a filthy gutter attack from the Party of Sleaze, Slither and Slime was to be expected. But health care reform was not undone by those malignant, malodorous pukes. It was undone by the Demorats themselves playing the happless Quixote when they could have been the triumphant El Cid.

Most of all it was undone by Obama himself. Mouthing the mantra of "consensus" he "invited" the corporate "stakeholders" to the table only to give them the whole meal. Was this truly "all" he could manage in the name of reform?

When it comes to giving -- to the banking-finance complex, to the military-industrial complex, to the medico-insurance complex, to the auto-complex and -- in short, to any corporate complex plus Israel, Obama has proved to be extraordinarily adept. When it comes to anything that helps the ordinary flesh and blood man or that protects the environment from its utter destruction or that restores a semblance of fundamental decency and due process to our official conduct, Obama has managed not to manage.

Far from being a second FDR, Fauxbama has proved to be just a bag of articulate but empty promises. He has lost our interest and earned our contempt.

.

© WCG, 2009

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Passing Allure of Promise


The last of the Kennedy Brothers is dead. We are filled, not with grief, but with a sense of demarked passing. Of what? Of our younger days?

It is true that the Kennedy's were far less progressive in deed than they were in word. But that is less important than it might seem. For all their faults and limitations the Kennedy's always spoke to the better angles of our nature. And they did so with humor and grace and devoid of self-righteousness. That light is now gone and will not come on again in our lifetime.

Alas, we are left to the spectral shades of meanness that so haunt our land and stain our alabaster cities with greed.

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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Inching Toward Soylent Colourful


Walmart is not the place we chipsters like to spend our Saturdays, but we needed a lug-wrench for an upcoming trip and some tools and stains for a weekend project; so, off we went hoping to beat both the crowds and the scorching noon-day sun.

We do not share the Upscalers’ disdain for “oh.... Waaalmarts....”. The fact is that for a wide range of generic items, Walmarts offers decent quality consumer goods at a cheaper-than-usual-price. While we are appalled by Walmart’s regressive labor policies at home and its profiteering from slave-like exploitation abroad, one has to be pretty dense not to realize that toney boutiques are hardly paradigms of labor fairness and that they get their designer brands from the same overseas sweatshops as the mega outlets.

We despise neo-liberal globalization as much as our neighbor but see no point in paying a half or double price for the same item, produced by the same oppressive system. Our local Village Hardware Shoppe sells an elbow socket attachment for $8.79 . Walmarts sells a set of three, just a tad less finished, for $4.28, which do just fine for a weekend grease-monkey. Neither was made by what might be called a union shop. And while we are on the subject -- you can’t by a banana anywhere that isn’t the fruit of murder and pressing down upon the brow of the laborer.

In all events, Walmarts is all we’ve got around these parts and I’ve relied on it for most of my house, shop, garage, garden and office supplies. We’ve gotten some pretty good stuff too: a pair of mocassin trail shoes that lasted forever; a handy Bissell vacuum cleaner that keeps on sucking away with a minimal “haul-factor” and a sturdy little lawn mower that did far more than it was rated for. We’ve also gotten some Duds Royal: a Bissel steam vac that turned out to be a piece of junk and $10.00 paper shredders that jam too easily. All in all, we’ve come to appreciate Walmart as the Jumbo version of the ol’ General Store and a common sense adjunct to Brooks Brothers.

Of late, the local Hicksville Walmarts has been remodeling. Every week, everything was in a different place, while more and more items were “out of stock.” The rumour was that it was being remade into a “super store” and we were urged to be patient. A “super store” would eventually have more of everything.

The store was finally remodelled last week. It looks very clean and nice but seemed to have less of everything. I kept on looking for items that used to be there but now weren’t. Seven shelves of auto stuff were now three and half length at that. Camping gear seemed smaller too; but without taking inventory it was more of an impression than anything else. Maybe it was just better organized. However, this Saturday it was clear that there were definitely less tools than there were before.

So I asked the paint man -- an old timer at the store, if I was mistaken or if the store was carryling less tools. The paint man has one of those a grins that cross with a grimace. “Nope, you’re not mistaken,” he grinned, “they’ve more than halved my inventory too.” Before I could ask why he said, “It’s all for food.”

“Food?” I asked. “Yes, food. They’ve cut back on everything to make room for food. “Haven’t you seen the new aisles of freezers?” I had, but it did not seem to me that the extra two banks of freezers had taken up that much space.

The help at Walmarts has a reputation of being worn-out, beaten down drones; and a lot of them are. But the store also hires “old-timers” and low level double dippers who’ve had some experience in life and who, in specific and curious ways, have a certain savvy.

There was the impecably made-up and obviously alcoholic sewing shop lady who had all sorts of tips about sewing and an opinion on any number of other products and their equally good alternatives or substitutes. She imparted all this information with a wry distance that said, “Life is crap, and so here we are!” Her savoire etre, saved us from having to belabor the obvious.

Paintman, on the other hand, has a complaining way about him. He doesn’t actually complain about things, but says things in such a way that leaves one with the distinct sense that he feels whatever it is could be better, or might be worse.

“Yes,” he said, “they did a two year study and came up with the conclusion that for the next two years people are going to be focusing on basics. No time for things like paint or tools. So they shifted to food. ”

“Is that just here in Hicksville?” I asked. “What?” he replied, “you think Walmart wastes times demografing specific locations? We’re a global company with a huge inventory based on mass production. All decisions are made on a global basis.” From his hunched forward position, he turned his head toward me and grinned. “Walmarts doesn’t care about you. We’re in the business to make money and the millions are in food.... at least for the next to years. That’s what their figures came up with.”

“Well thanks for your help.” I said. “Anytime.”

Now this was far more valuable information than anyone will read in the New York Times or might pay for at some “investment firm”. Walmarts... which thinks globally mind you... has decided that for the next to years the vast army of unwashed shmoes will be “focusing on food.” Larry Summers can take his stimulus hype and chop it into a burrito.

And yet when it comes to food, Walmart and I part ways. This is not to say that one can’t find decent food items at the store. Their tuna is as “Dolphin Safe” (so called) as any other and 70 cents cheaper. Their olive oil, while not cold pressed is a decent deal, as is their instant coffee... for those of us who are instant coffee aficionados. (It's a cultural thing.) But for the most part, Walmart Food, comes out of the other end of Moloch’s Maw.

At first blush, Walmart’s food concept has an appearance of dietary common sense. The food section provides canned vegetables, rice, pasta, cooking oil, condiments, cereals, eggs, milk, cheese, butter, some processed meats, bread, coffee, tea and, of course, velveeta and spam. While this is hardly the stuff of the Mediterranean diet, it does conform to something like the government recommended basic daily intake pyramid. Walmart is not a grocery store and so it seems unfair to blame it for carrying canned green beans instead of fresh brussel sprouts.

But on closer inspection, what is being fobbed off as food is a dietary crime. The canned vegetables are simply varieties of sodium-water and the canned fruits, of high fructose corn syrup. Each can contains a certain amount of tasteless plant pulp, but otherwise what is offered up behind the pretty label is simply forms of salt and fructose.

The milk, cheese, butter and processed meats are basically varietal forms of grease, although they do contain traces of protein amidsts the chemical flavorings and preservatives. Most of these products also contain high amounts of salt and often fructose as well.

In addition to these “staple basics” Walmart sells what might be style “processed basics” -- frozen pizza, frozen waffles, frozen pop-tarts, frozen chicken nuggets and frozen dinners. But although the colourful boxes present the image of difference, the actual contents were simply forms of sugar, salt and grease with the occasional bleached grain or processed meat-stuff thrown in. In essence, Walmart Food was a monotonous triad, decked out to look different and exiciting.

This is not to deny that, at a certain level, all food breaks down to fats, carbohydrates and proteins which, at some point or another, are themselves broken down further into glucose. But we have also learned over the years that foods contain a plethora of vitamins, minerals and enzymes that are essential and healthful in myriads of ways we are still uncovering. Without delving into a prolonged nutritional discourse, it may suffice to say that a fresh sweet asparagus snapped from its stalk is simply not the same thing as the lifeless soggy green stick of pulp swimming in acrid salt water that can only be made, at least flavourful, by adding forms and grease and more salt.

And so --- staring at Hicksville Walmart’s shiny new freezer display -- it occured to us that Walmart Food was actually very close to offering mere variations of a Uni-Source. Those who have read Omnivors Dilemma, -- Michael Pollan’s fascinating analysis of the American Factory Food System -- will immediately grasp that I am talking about corn. To simplify Pollard’s entertaining and informative exposition, corn is at the source of virtually all of our food in one way or another. Bacon and eggs in the morning? It’s just corn-fed pig and corn fed chicken, and milk from the corn-fed cow.

Clearly the chicken, pig and cow add their own “animal processes” to the corn turning it into meat and dairy protein, so that our breakfast plate is at least one step away from corn-stuff. But to say as much, does not take into account the extent to which natural animal processes and factory processes have become so entertwined as to be indistinguishable. The cow’s milk is not simply what the cow does with corn, but what it does to corn with the aid of hormones and antibiotics without which it could not process the corn at all. And all this to say nothing of the petrochemically enhanced kibble that goes into the average pound of hamburger “meat”.

Whatever might be said of animal contributions to the substance of our food chain, the case is far more primary when it comes to breakfast cereal which, as Pollan points out, is not even whole grain but simply "exploded" nutritionally worthless kernels that cost 4 cents to produce and sell for $4.00 a box.

At first, Walmart’s endless varieties of “sub-primary” grease, salt and sugar, would appear to be two steps removed from a single source -- a further processing of the meat, milk and egg material. However, this further processing is mostly just industrial cooking -- a mere rearranging of the ingredients into something called a “pizza” or “pop-over” or chocolate (flavoured) chip cookie. Should we be annoyed at Walmart for selling "cereal" at all or should we be grateful it only charges $2.00 a box?

As we were ruminating over these facts, a friend of ours called to tell us that corporations were investing money into growing and harvesting sea algae. “What for?” “They say for fuel,” he replied, “but I don’t believe them.”

Well... we're not quite at the stage of "reconstituting" human body parts and, if our friend's incredulity is correct, we may never get to that stage. Either way, Walmart’s food display was not Nature’s Cornucopia, but rather a testimonial to artificial ingenuity. It was peddling huge quantities of grease, fructose and salt, within a wrapping of leeched and bleached grains with some chemically engineered, industrially processed proteins thrown in.

And the effects of this “focus” were all too evident as sallow, obese forms of human lard limped and waddled down the aisles filling their carts with colorful bags and boxes and jars of Walmart’s Food Triad. As paintman said, “We’re not in the business for you”

©WCG, 2009
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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Pope's Trip to Kanossa Unmitigated Disaster for Church


The Pope’s trip to the Middle East was an unimitigated disaster. It accomplished nothing except to provide Israel with precious photo-op images of Christ’s Vicar doing atonement and homage to the Jewish State as self-appointed symbol of Judaism.

There are times when considerations of honor give way to obtaining tangible gain. As Henry IV put it, “Paris is worth a mass.” But the Pope’s trip to Israel-Jordan was not one of them. It was entirely foreseeable that the Pope could resolve none of the geo-political issues that vex the region and that such lesser issues as were resolvable did not require personal papal intervention in the negotiating process.

If the Pope entertained ideas that he could bring a geo-political settlement to the Jewish-Palestinian conflict he was seriously misadvised. There was no possibility of such thing, primarily because Israel does not want settlement on any other terms than those which give it regional hegemony and a de-facto Greater Israel.

Not but a day after the Pope deplaned for Rome, than Bibi Netanyahu announced that he remained opposed to a two-state solution but was all eager and excited for a “fresh approach”. According to minister Ehud Barak, “Netanyahu will tell Obama: ‘We’re willing to engage in a process whose end is a regional peace accord. ... [which will include]... two peoples living side by side in peace and mutual respect.” [ BBC ]

How long will the world stupidly swallow this bully-boy cynicism? This is nothing but a rehash of the 1993 Oslo Accords which envisioned a five year “process” at the end of which some sort of Palestinian “homeland” would be permanently established. Netanyahu vehemently opposed the accords and wanted them repudiated outright. Instead the Israeli government pursued a policy of Death by a Thousand Quibbles and by the time of the First Intifada, the “process” was dead. Now cometh Netanyahu proclaiming that he is eager for “process” that will lead to some sort of eventual peace. One has to be stupider than a Mongoloid Idiot (or at least a daily reader of the Post and Times) not to figure out what is going on. Did the Vatican Secretariate of State actually believe the weepy propaganda served up by AIPAC, ADL and other zionist agencies of the Israeli State? There was absolutely no chance that the Pope could nudge any process even an inch further a long and therefore a trip to Israel and Jordan could not be justified on geo-political grounds.

If the Pope went to the Middle East to bring inter-faith reconciliation that too was a misadvised purpose. In this field, a pope has more power because he deals with homologous counterparts. But inter-religious reconciliation is not something achievable by the wave of a wand. Is there anyone dolt who does not know that the Holy Land is “home to all three of the world’s great religions” ? God knows we’ve heard this blather frequently enough. Is there anyone who does not know that Jesus preached peace? Were it enough to stand on the banks of the River Jordan and call upon the world to repent its divisions, we’d be awash in the ambrosia of religious harmony.

In fact, there was neither hope nor need for reconciliation which refers to doctrinal issues. Reconciliation is a goal to be worked for between Christians but not with other faiths. As the Muslim response to Benedict’s Regensburg Address noted, the common ground between Christianity and Islam exists on the moral level of love of God and Man. [ See WCG Feature ] The same might be said of Judaism, and anyone who imaginedsthat Judaism and Chrisitanity can be theologically reconciled has been reading too much multi-cultural nonsense. When Jewish leaders call for “reconciliation” they mean apologies, abjection and atonement.

Nor did the pope need to go to Israel in order to work on and resolve issues concerning church properties, taxation, administrative exemptions and visas for priests. The Church has ancient and important interests in the Holy Land which it devolves on current governments to respect. But these are matters for monsignori and secretaries of State. The pope should only be called in for the Grand Signatory Moment... and such a moment were it to be reached was more appropriately held in the halls of the Holy See not in some adjunct Knesset meeting hall. In all events no such resolution of these outstanding issues was announced.

Given that the Pope’s trip served no practical purpose whatsoever, it could be argued that the trip served one or more symbolic purposes -- a kind of “show the cross” diplomacy. But if that was the purpose it too also a total failure.

The Church has both an interest and responsibility to Arab Christian Communities, across the Middle East. But the sad fact is that these ancient and venerable communities have been decimated as a direct and intended result of Israeli and American policies. Iraq’s Chaldean Catholics are among the oldest denominations in Christendom, having survived numerous perils and persecutions. These were the first and foreseeable victims of the U.S. and Israel policy to “constabularize” Iraq -- i.e. to destroy civil society and replace it with degraded, demoralized, penetrated “zones of democratic peace” kept in a state of ongoing low-level civil warfare both provoked and repressed by so-called “full spectrum” forces capable of engaging in subversion, torture, spying, police repressions and military assaults all at once. The goal of U.S. and Israel policy has been nothing less than the establishment of a cordon constabulaire stretching from Georgia to Af -Pakistan. [ See WCG Feature ] Such a policy which had no intent of building up anything and every intent of tearing down everything had no more regard for the integrity of Chaldean Comumunity than it did for the integrity of the priceless ruins of Babylon.

The Pope’s visit could only underscore the perilous fragility of these decimated communities without there being anything the Pope could effectually insist upon. If he intended to provide a moment of solidarity that pleasantry was made obnoxious by its very uselessness. A happy moment of flag waving at an outdoor mass is not a Benedictine ora et laboro.

The same might be said with respect to the Arab Christian Communities within Israel, only in this case the interests of Palestinian Christians and Arabs coalesce as against an Israeli policy of degradation and oppression that discriminates against all Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, Muslim and Christian alike.

If the Pope meant to offer a species of support to Palestinians geo-political aspirations, he more than failed. Far from issuing a clear and crisp clarion call for the establishment of a Palestinian State, Benedict’s tepid and carefully hedged call for a “sovereign Palestinian homeland” was little more than a pale echo of Oslo. With support like that who needs Condoleeza Rice?

Catholics around the world could stand ashamed at the Pope’s worse than morally tepid response to the so-called “Wall of Separation” -- standing in front of monstruous concrete prison barrier that Israel is constructing around the West Bank, Benedict mumbled, “Towering over us... is a strark reminder of the stalemate that relations between Israelis and Palestinians seemed to have reached.”

Stalemate? Is that what Benedict would have called the separation walls around Warsaw and Lodz? What kind of sunset do the imprisoned denizens of the West Bank see from behind that wall? And against this dismal backdrop of thuggish state power Benedict called for Palestinian “patience”?

To add humiliation to shame, even the Pope’s enfeebled call for a “homeland” was immediately rejected and gainsaid by Israel even while the Pope was still on Israeli-Palestinian soil. With that in mind, it can be seen that Barak’s statement on the heels of Popes departure was nothing short of a diplomatic, “Boy did we kick his ass.” And the one thing that can be said about punks and bullies is that they boast the truth -- Benedict got his butt kicked, and hard.

Would that that were all. But in “return” for accomplishing nothing and getting a sound diplomatic kick to the butt, Israel got a propaganda bonanza of priceless images showing the Pope (and through him the Church) rendering homage and atonement to various symbols of Jewish identity.

The bonanza began with the fact that the Pope made the trip at all ensuing upon Israel’s brutal and unlawful attack on Gaza which was condemned by every major humanitarian organization and by virtually the entire world community, except of course Israel and its client states. By going at all, the Pope sent a morally bankrupt message that Israel could get away choking off food supplies, bombing hospitals and phosphorizing and murdering civilians with little more than soon forgotten protests.

The bonanza doubled with the very fact that two popes have now paid a visit to Israel. To many people this might seem like a numerical matter of little importance. Au contraire, any tradition begins with “two” -- just like the two successive appointments of Jewish lawyers to the Supreme Court, which the American Jewish establishment the self-announced constituted a “tradition” of a “Jewish Seat” on the High Court. Thus, although from a Christian perspective, the Pope’s visit to the Holy Land might be seen as a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the Israeli State will interpret the visit as a due, regular and recognition of the Jewish State. It matters not that this recognition was already established in the the musty volumes of diplomatic protocol, what matters is the popular and visual message of the head of Christendom going to Israel. And not simply to be there and to recognize the marvel of how Jews made a desert bloom, but to render atonement at Yad Vashem and humble homage at the “Wailing Wall”.

Let no one think that atonement was not at issue in the Pope’s visit to the Yad Vashem Memorial, the reaction in the Jewish press and from Jewish leaders made very clear that atonement was exactly what they had in mind.... and expected. But what business is it of the Pope to offer atonement for Nazi genocide? The pope is the visible head of the Body of Christ, he represent sand speaks for all Catholics. It has to be fairly asked: what do all Catholics have to atone to the Jewish People for? I certainly accept no responsibility whatsoever for an event that occurred before I was born, and neither do all Catholics bear responsibility for the crimes of a regime that had explicitly rejected the tenets of the Catholic faith.

Jews may see it otherwise. In fact the very concept of the so-called “righteous gentile” implies that all other gentiles (by which is meant non-Jews) are unrighteous unless cleared and approved by some Jewish Committee of Indulgences. Anyone who wants to view the world in such self-validating, other- debasing manichean terms has a legal right to do so; but the head of the Catholic Church has no business buying into that political-theology.

Nor did the Pope have any business paying homage to Judaism’s most sacred symbol and site, the Western Wall of the Second Temple. It is a decent and civilized thing to respect the sacred precincts of alien religions whatever they may be. But respect and acknowledgement are not the same thing. For Jews, the Western Wall is not only the symbol of the Diaspora but also of the coming Messianic Time when the temple will be rebuilt. Christians most emphatically believe that that time came and passed. Christ himself showed no reverence for the Second Temple -- in fact he pretty much excoriated it as a place of oppression. He said he would destroy it and in three days build a more perfect spiritual temple. Jews are entirely entitled to reject that theology; the Pope is not within his prerogatives to compromise it.

Among latitudinarians there is a trite and sentimental notion that the more we kumbaya and reach out and validate the “other” the closer and more harmonious we all will be. That is simply nonsense. I’d be the first to admit that we might all be better off as dogs, but as humans we hold to different and often irreconcilable beliefs. Would a religious Jew think of offering prayers at the Holy Sepulchre? Has the Chief Rabbi of Israel gone to kiss the stone on which Jesus’s body was lain? Of course not. There simply is no “reconciliation” between Judaism and Christianity on a theological level and it is simple pie-in-the-sky to think otherwise. There may be coincidence and agreement on moral and practical issues but that is not the same thing.

Thus, when Jewish religious leaders praise John Paul II for his efforts at reconciliation and criticise Benedict XVI for not reconciling enough, what do they mean? “Reconciliation” is simply a code word for acknowledging guilt for Nazi genocide and theological subordination as a “daughter religion” -- a mere offshoot versus prophetic fullfilment of -- Judaism. In my view neither claim warrants Christian aquiesence.

Of course, the Vatican takes refuge in precisely and artfully phrased formula, that never quite go so far as is demanded. But the present trip illustrates the uselessness of such formula. Ordinary people don’t read them any more than they read the Summa Contra Gentiles. They are informed by simple messages and simple images. God knows the Catholic Church understands this; so why is the Vatican forgetting it now?

What the people see is images of the Pope going to Israel qua Canossa and standing in a position of contrition at the Holocaust Memorial and humbly offering homage and prayer at the Western Wall. And having thus given Israel and its propaganda agencies pricelessly useful image what did the Pope get in return? Unforgiving carping, criticism and chastisement.

Jewish pundits, political and religious leaders complained that the Pope did atone enough.

“You were not asked to do something unprecedented or heroic” wrote Hanoch Daum of the Yeditoh Ahronoth daily, “All that was required [sic!] of you was a brief, authoritative and touching sentence.. All you had to do was to express regret.” One wonders if Daum had a dunce cap ready as well.

“The identify of the murderers went completely unmentioned” Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, head of the Yad Vashem Council, complained. “With all due respect to the Holy See we cannot ignore the burden he bears.” Once again a typical equivocation seeks gain from confusion. How does he bear a burden? As an identified German or as the head of all Catholics? And if as an individual German, how was that relevant on a trip in the capacity of pope?

Other Israelis didn’t see the difference anyways.

“We’re talking about the pope, who is also a representative of the Holy See, which has a lot to ask forgiveness from our people for,” Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin said, “And he is also a German whose country and people have asked forgiveness, but he himslef comes and speaks to us like an historian...”

Still others criticised Benedict’s reference to “millions” killed “rather than citing the more exact estimate of six million Jews. This was truly marvellous, since the leading Holocaust Historian, Raul Hilberg has himself placed the estimate at 5.1 million.

In a condescending article the Jerusalem Post blamed Benedict for not “getting it right” and then went on to state the point that had to be gotten:

During the previous papacy, an effort was made to limit the story of Chruch anti-semitism to anti-Judaic attitudes of “some” or “many” Christian[s]... This is a distortion of history: The Church as such actively persecuted Jews, not only Judaism. It never planned a genocide of the Jews, but since the time of the Church Fathers it permitted and very often encouraged beatings, torture, humiliation, disposession, exile and forced conversion and occasionally massacres. Its princes then often had to try and defend the Jews from their own incitement against them. ... Christian anti-semitism was a necessary, though not sufficient source of the Nazi ideology. And then of course there is the unresolved problem of Pius XII...[who] did not publicly oppose the Nazi genocide of the Jews....
The Jerusalem Post article certainly does reflect a Zionist perspective of two millenia years of Christian history but it is (not yet at least) the only version, and the very broadness of the brush betrays its contradictions and inaccuracies. But for all that, it makes it very clear what was “expected” of the Pope from these quarters and what their ultimate agenda is.

It was Edward Gibbon who pithily wrote that “history was the sorry chronicle of the crimes, vices and follies of mankind.” Although he was chronicling Rome, the key word is “mankind” including Jews who act no differently from others when they have power, as the Old Testament and Current News make quite clear. Like any other group Jews had good times and bad times within the past two millenia. They were not the only ones to suffer persecution as did also Albigensians, Protestants, Catholics each in their turn, or starvation and slaughter as did Black Africans, American Indians, the Irish and the Armenians. To say that “most” Christians and the Church “as such” are guilty of unrelenting persecution of wholy innocent Jews is not objective history but a subjective fetish.

This history of perpetual persecution is a trite, self-serving and polemical narration the practical purpose of which is to justify Zionist goals and promote -- not any true reconciliation -- but perpetual guilt and retribution. The only common ground in this game is that which lies between a kneeling penitent and a triumphant victim.

Although Jews excoriated the Pope for not doing enough, saying enough, earnestly enough, Israel and its Zionist apologists still got good photo copy. The visual message has been clear: Pope Pays Pilgrimage of Atonement and Homage to Israel. In my view this image is damaging to the Church and, through it, to the concept of Christian Civilization.

Despite being forewarned, the Pope’s advisors persisted in the ill-conceived project. They should be thoroughly sacked, and packed off to be spiritual advisors to some Carmelite convent or Trapist monastery.

©WCG, 2009
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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Feeding Time at the School


Yesterday, The Pack was taking its usual after-hours walk around the local high school grounds. As usual, the dogs nudged their way toward the classroom area where they went into electrolux mode sniffing and scarfing up food-detritus. This annoys me, but I let them do it at least for a while on the rationalization that hunting and scavenging are what dogs are about. I do put my foot down, though, on Goobers and other disgusting things that our teenage population dribble out of their mouths.

It annoys me to see what these kids eat, which seems to consist in 1001 varieties of salt, grease and sugar. Strewn around the place are: pizza slices, french fries, velveeta smothered nachos, saucy crunchy chicken nuggets, hot dogs and chips, chips, muffins and candy. Oh for an apple core!!

It also annoys me to see how much of this garbage doesn't seem to make it to its intended repository but instead gets spilled about the ground. Are they physically challenged or are they just pigs?

These annoyances are so routine by now that I hardly think about them. But they do come to mind when, as yesterday, Rosco-dog makes a quick lunge for something particularly revolting.

A voice hearkened to my muttering. "Oh, come on, now. Kids will be kids."

"Oh yeah?"

"Yes, it's only natural that some food will get dropped and dribbled here and there."

"It is? No it isn't. What's unnatural is that these kids are allowed to eat and roam at the same time, as if they were some species on the hoof."

It then occurred to me that yet another thing wrong with our public schools is that they don't require everyone to sit down at a common meal. In our local school, they let the kids wander about munching fast food garbage, in a mode little different from that of my dogs. In others schools, the students are allowed to meander into a noisy cafeteria where they divide up into cliques and clusters. Either way, this is completely wrong. It is, in fact, degenerate.

The common meal is the most basic social act in all cultures. That more than 1000 lectures and 1001 school pep rallies is the one thing that inculcates a spirit and habit of community. What our local school is teaching, at a very radical level, is simply alienation and irresponsibility.

I thought back to my (rather privileged) school days. Boy! were we noisy brats. We had our cliques. We tripped up our fellow-student waiters, found ways to steal extra helpings from the serving carts and did all the mischevious and voluble things kids do. But when all was said and done, three times a day we gathered, stood behind our chairs and sat down to eat together.

Of course, this country being what it is, any Common Meals Program is bound to stir up a School Prayer Controversy, which will no doubt make its way all the way up to the Supreme Court as Americans find yet another way to quarrel over the inconsequential while ignoring the simple basics, which could be simply stated as: mindful of those less fortunate; we are thankful for our food and for our friends.

©WCG, 2009
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Friday, April 10, 2009

voca me cum benedictus



A little while back we were having an unremarkable chat with a friend of the Gazette during which we remarked that Pope Benedict's definition of faith (Spe Salvi) seemed to us to define faith as a social committment by us to live as we would like our reality to be. Our friend immediately interjected a protest. "No, not just that!" Detecting the essential unilateralism of such a definition, he insisted that, "God is really communicating to us from the Cross."

Communicate? What a goddamn piss-poor way to “communicate”. Was He some sort of Cosmic Imbecile or what?

We rolled our eyes and let it slide; but in truth such palaver rubs us the wrong way. If God is so damn eager to “communicate” with us, why doesn’t he shower us with iPods from Heaven? I’m sure He could cut a favorable licensing deal with Steve Jobs. Why He could then keep in personal touch with each and all of us, answering our personal questions and tailor-texting us instructions on what we needed to do. But nooo! Instead he pulls a Rockefeller and sends out invites via third class mail. This Wireless Act on Stick was such a dumb and inane way of “communicating” as to leave one wondering if maybe God was that than which nothing more fucked up stupid could be conceived. And not wondering for very long either.

In fact why bother “communicating” at all? Actions speak louder than words, my mom always said. Who cares about messages? What most of us need is food for the tummy, money for operation and maybe a little better luck than getting our arms blown off by some US /Israeli drone or being born a girl sex toy in Thailand. This blathering mantra that “He died on the Cross for our Sins” is decidedly underwhelming. Whoopee dooo. I mean, here’s this ‘Guy’ whose got all the power and goods in the universe and what does he decide to do? To incarnate himself in some filthy, fanatic-filled backwater and then get himself in Big Trouble with the local sheriffs. The whole thing strikes me as nothing more than a Self-indulgent act of Divine Slumming.

And who gives a rat's ass about “God sharing our humanity.” Big deal. In case He hasn’t figured it out, most of us would rather the sharing go the other way... a little co-participation in Heavenly Ease or Seventy Two Virgins... whatever. But it gets worse. When the Beloved Darling ascends back to Daddy and his Heavenly Mansion on Park Place, does he provide any coat-tails for the rest of us? Noooo.... we’re still here in stuck in the muck of things. Looks to me like He’s just another typical Hi-There! One-of-the-fellas, rich boy.

The whole thing pisses me off. With gods like that who needs devils?

-0O0-

Of course I could never have such thoughts in Mexico. Not in a thousand years. The truth is different down there somehow. One doesn’t think about the “message” of the Crucifixion. There really is nothing to “communicate”. It is there. It is a fact. It is overwhelming.

As von Balthasar would say, we are “endowed to be a response” and to the theological drama of Good Friday we respond with horror, first, but thereupon with compassion and renunciation. If we cannot un-nail Jesus from the cross or free him from the lash, we can at least renounce the conducts, attitudes and lusts that lead to a man’s crucifixion and we resolve to do unto others as we would have done for him had we been there. That after all is the greatest whole sacrifice, is it not? (Mark 12:33)

No. The truth appears different down there. In Mexico, the Crucifixion evokes a decided response.

Evokes..... Ex Vocare..... Ah , well, in that case...

©WCG, 2009
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